Friday 12 December 2014

Where are all the disabled people?

In the wake of several disability related stories in the spotlight in the news recently, I have noticed many people disparaging the statistics on the number of disabled people in this country.


One statistic says that as many as 12 million, roughly one in 10 people in the UK are disabled. This statistic is constantly derided and often cited as proof that people these days are less resilient or fiddle the benefits system.
However this figure refers to people disabled under the Equality Act, ie have a physical or mental condition which has a "long-term and substantial effect on your daily life". Dependent on severity this might include certain long term illnesses such as diabetes or conditions such as dementia. This is why the figure is much higher compared to stereotypically "disabled" as the general public generally understands it, eg "in a wheelchair" or "blind". It should be noted that half of these are over pensionable age, a sign of our aging population.

Some people take this to mean that 12 million people are on disability benefits. Nothing could be further from the truth. Criteria to receive disability benefits are stringent. Benefits are given if the effect of the disability will give rise to significant costs due to mobility difficulties or the need for personal care (DLA, or Attendence Allowance for pensioners only). Another (ESA) is given if the person has become unable to work.
The number on each benefit is 3.13 (DLA), 1.46 (Attendence Allowance) and 2.15 million (ESA) respectively, with significant overlap between ESA and DLA.
NB: DLA figures includes pensioners who claimed DLA as working age people and then later passed pensionable age. 
Even here, many people disbelieve these statistics, saying it is impossible for so many people to be so sick or disabled as they don't know or see any.

Hidden disabled people

So where are we?
Well, when it comes to very sick and disabled people, many of us are hidden away. For instance, I am  mostly housebound. This is not all that unique. I communicate with the world through the internet and am in contact with many other sick and disabled people, who, like me, are rarely well enough to go out.
Those same disbelievers are the people who walk past my flat every day, completely unaware that they are feet away from one of these very sick people they think don't exist.
Some years ago I applied for the wheelchair discount on my council tax. I am so hidden away that when an officer from the council came round to check that I really was a wheelchair user, some of the neighbouring flats told him that no wheelchair user lived here. Given that I could go months without leaving my flat, they had never seen me!

Another point is that some people can be very sick but "look fine". Certain illnesses and conditions (lupus, MS, Crohns, mental illness) can have devastating, disabling and sometimes even life threatening symptoms yet which are not visible to the naked eye. You will walk right past such people without knowing it. These people are "hidden in plain sight".

As an aside it is an ironic effect of modern medicine that there are more disabled people around. While some cures have doubtless been found, it is often the case that previously fatal illnesses can be treated but not cured, causing long term disability. Similarly, previously fatal injuries and conditions are now survived but not necessarily fully recovered from.

Too many scooters!

Strangely, at the same time that people scoff at disability figures, a large number complain at the number of mobility scooters/wheelchairs in our streets. They groan that it never used to be this way and many take it as a sign that people are lazy or pretending to be disabled. Particular disdain is reserved for anyone who is overweight and "therefore" uses a scooter.
On this last point they should consider that exercise may be difficult for someone with mobility and very possibily health problems. They may also be on medication which actually causes weight gain. Cause and consequence should not be mixed!
Secondly, the fact that more mobility scooters and wheelchairs are around is something to celebrate. It is a consequence of the very hard work of the disabled generation who came before me and fought for disability access. There is still a long way to go and many problems, as was illustrated by the very recent court decision on wheelchair spaces on buses. But it has freed many disabled people to get out and about much more easily.
When people ask what these disabled people used to do, the answer is simple. They were stuck at home or even in institutions. Just because they weren't seen didn't mean they weren't there. I remind you of myself and my neighbours!

We sick and disabled people really are here. Some of us are so sick that we are hidden away. Others are hidden in plain sight. Finally, despite setbacks, we should be celebrating, not bemoaning the fact that those of us with mobility issues are better able to access society.


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